7 Things I Learned from a 7-Week Research Internship

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work at your college full-time? What it would be like to spend your days assisting a professor with research? What it would be like to cook all of your own food?

Well wonder no more, because I just spent the past seven weeks as an assistant editor for a literary magazine called The Artful Dodge, edited and published out of my college, The College of Wooster.

Come along as I share what I learned. Even if you aren’t planning to intern at your college, I guarantee you’ll learn a thing or two that you can apply to any future internship or job.

1. How to Navigate College Bureaucracy

college bureaucracy for CIG

Okay, so it’s more like stacks of emails, but you get the idea.

College is more political than you think, and I ain’t talking about the Student Government. I’m talking about the departments. Every time I wanted to get something done for my professor, I had to email three or four different departments.

One of my duties included securing a new computer for the magazine I worked on, and that involved emailing the Business Office, IT, the departmental coordinator, and the department chair.

This is the sort of stuff you probably don’t notice during the semester, but if you’re going to survive any internship (or job), you have to learn the politics of your workplace.

2. Cheap Food Doesn’t Have to Be Unhealthy

Look at that grease...

Look at that grease…finger-lickin’ good.

Because of the high cost ($200 a week!), I eschewed the meal plan for the summer. Believe it or not, though, I didn’t just eat pizza and ramen the whole time. I actually managed to cook healthy, delicious food.

I was lucky that my research position was paid, so I didn’t have to live entirely off my savings. I certainly could have been much more frugal than I was, but I value good nutrition…and the occasional dark chocolate bar.

For the first few weeks, a typical day’s meals looked like this:

  • Breakfast: Greek yogurt (full fat) and banana
  • Lunch: Peanut Butter, dried fruit, carrots, and possibly a boiled egg or canned tuna
  • Dinner: Eggs boiled, scrambled, fried, or made into an omelet, usually with a side of carrots and spinach or kale
  • Late night snack: cheese, a granola bar, or peanut butter, maybe some Nutella…

The last three weeks, however, inspired by some advice on cheap cooking from Budget Bytes, I adopted a new approach. Each Sunday, I’d roast some sort of meat (usually beef) and vegetables in my Dutch oven or slow cooker. I’d make recipes meant to feed four people and store the leftovers in a plastic container. This became my dinner for most of the week.

All I had to do was remove the lid and pop it in the microwave for a few minutes. Healthy and easy, especially if I’d just worked out (that’s right, I lift!) and didn’t feel like cooking.

I know it may not look the most appetizing (this was on day 3), but rest assured it was delicious.

I know it may not look that appetizing (this was on day 3), but rest assured it was delicious.

Two of my favorite slow cooker recipes were chicken ropa vieja from Budget Bytes and Jude’s chuck roast from The 4-Hour Chef.

I also discovered the local farmer’s market, where I was able to pick up organic produce and free range eggs for a fraction of the grocery store price.

I’d say my grocery costs averaged around $30 a week, though bear in mind this was in Wooster, Ohio, a small town where the cost of living is rather low. If you’re interning in a major city, expect to spend more.

3. Home Is More Important Than I Realized

“Home is where one starts from.”

– T.S. Eliot

Well duh, you might say. But I had never been that homesick during the semester since I had my girlfriend, classes, and regular group of friends to keep me company.

In contrast, this internship was pretty solitary, and though I had two awesome roommates, they usually worked opposite shifts of mine, so I was on my own most days. I like my alone time–I’m an introvert. But even I got lonely

More than loneliness, though, I realized how much I love my hometown of Nashville, TN. If you were to give me a choice, I’d prefer a hike in the woods to a night on the town, but living in such a small town made me miss the excitement and energy of a full-sized city. I’m definitely going to aim for an internship in Nashville next summer if possible (it would cut down on living costs as well).

And of course, I missed my family. I called home once a week and texted with my brother and parents, but I realized that this was the first summer I’d spent without them. Family really is one of the most important things, cliché as it may sound, and this internship gave me a glimpse of how important it will be to stay in touch with my family once I leave home for good.

4. Self-Directed Work Has Its Advantages…

My average work day during the internship looked like this:

  • 9AM-2PM: Relevant work for the day
  • 2PM-4:30PM: Meet with professor
  • 4:30PM-5PM: Finish random tasks for the day

As such, my schedule was basically my own. As long as I got my work done and checked my email regularly, it didn’t matter where or how I worked. Compared to my last summer job working at Walmart, I had unparalleled freedom.

This was lots of fun. If I wanted to listen to the College Info Geek podcast while I edited a short story, I was free to.

If I wanted to work outside next to a waterfall under a tree, I could.

Updating the Artful Dodge website in my pajamas while sucking down spoonfuls of Nutella? Theoretically…

I could even have worked while lounging in a hammock like this cat.

I could even have worked while lounging in a hammock like this cat.

This definitely taught me about the kind of job I want to have, whether I end up working for myself or for a company. The freedom to work where and when I want is important.

If the only thought you’ve put into your future is that you’d like to ”get a good job,” then I encourage you to consider other more specific factors such as location, amount of independence, and work environment. Consider lifestyle as well as salary and prestige, and above all, be mindful of your path.

5. …But It Also Has Many Pitfalls

All this freedom was also a curse. Without anyone directly supervising me for most of the day, I was free to browse Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, College Info Geek, and other similarly addicting sites all I wanted. Many days I fell into the trap of multitasking, editing a magazine submission while simultaneously looking at random crap.

The temptation to sleep was also real (that's two cat pictures in one post, Thomas. I dare you to make a video that beats that!).

The temptation to sleep was also real (that’s two cat pictures in one post, Thomas. I dare you to make a video that beats that!).

This is one of the pitfalls of the standard workday schedule, for sure. I got paid the same amount just for being there and passing the time whether I worked or not. More and more companies are inventing ways to combat this temptation by making employees more accountable for their hours (Toggl comes to mind), but it’s definitely still a risk.

I can see this as one of the appeals of self-employment: you get out of your work what you put into it, up to a point, and certainly more than a job where you’re often just inputting hours (though from what Thomas has said, there’s just as much temptation to procrastinate when you’re self-employed).

I can see this as one of the appeals of self-employment–you get out of your work what you put into it, up to a point, and certainly more than a job where you’re just punching the clock (though from what Thomas has said, there’s just as much temptation to procrastinate when you’re self-employed).

And of course, these same temptations apply to college life in general, where you have lots of unstructured time. To curb the temptation to engage in mindless, low-density fun as a way to avoid school work, have a look at Thomas’s video on high-density fun.

6. Having a Mentor Is Invaluable

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”

— Robert Frost

The best part of my internship was getting to work for an experienced professor. Until last semester, I had been fairly sure I wanted to pursue a PhD and become a professor one day. After learning more about the other opportunities available to me and the realities of being a professor (many years of school with no guarantee of a job and lots of jumping through hoops and bureaucracy to get one), my goals have changed, but I still love literature, and I couldn’t have picked a better professor to learn from.

Just sitting next to him while he edited someone’s work, arguing with him about revisions, and seeing what it takes to put together a large publication were invaluable.

Whatever your prospective field is, find a way to intern it, ideally in a situation where you get to work closely with an experienced professional. You might discover a field you never imagined you’d love, or you might learn what kind of work environment you don’t enjoy, as Thomas did in his internship. Either way, you’ll learn a lot professionally and personally.

Seeing what everyday life is like as a professor convinced me that I’d rather pursue a career that allows me more freedom of location and requires me to deal with less bureaucracy and administrative work, but I did learn a lot about what it’s like to plan and teach a class, information that I’ll definitely put to use in my future classes.

If you can get any kind of job at your school, especially one where you work closely with an experienced staff or faculty member, it’s worth it just for what you’ll learn about how to better navigate your academic career, let alone your professional one.

7. Your Professors Are Actually Pretty Awesome

Okay, maybe not THIS awesome, but they can still be pretty cool.

Okay, maybe not THIS awesome, but they can still be pretty cool.

One of my favorite parts of my internship was getting to know my professor outside of the classroom. I’m fortunate to attend a small liberal arts college where it’s not uncommon to have dinner at a professor’s house or see one of them around town, but even then my interaction was still mostly limited to class and office hours.

Remember the meetings I mentioned in point 4? While they certainly concerned the magazine we were working on, they also consisted of us talking about books, travel, American regional culture, hiking, and what it’s like to be a professor. He told me about his travels all over the world, his experience learning Polish and French, and what it was like to be in Poland during the Cold War.

“Professors have lives, you know.”

– Every college professor whose students think they’re a vampire who sleeps in their office

Beyond our meetings, I got to have dinner at his house (nothing like a proper home cooked meal), meet his family, and even watch his pets for a weekend while he was out of town.

I’m not saying you’ll get to do those specific things if you work for a professor or intern at your college, but I know you’ll learn that the people who teach you, grade your papers, and answer your frantic 2 AM emails are real people too, people with hobbies and families and adorable, energetic dogs.

Getting to know your professors never hurt your grades, either.

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I hope you learned a few things that will help you, whether you’re in the middle of an internship or hunting for one next summer (it’s never too early to start looking). Have any of you worked for a professor or interned at your college? What did you learn? Share it in the comments.

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Images: typewriter, ‘cuz i just get enough of papersGrease, HAMMOCK TIME #45, cat on ledgeskateboarding professor

Ransom Patterson is a content writer, saxophonist, and recovering literature major. When he's not enjoying long hikes through the Appalachian wilderness, he's stroking his lush beard and pondering what book to read next.

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